You don’t have to grow up flinging fish at Pike Place to know just how wonderful salmon can be. Its tender-fatty flavor practically melts in your mouth and its rosy color looks bright on any plate. While salmon tastes delicious on its own, it’s a great base for marinades, glazes and sauces, which win over even the pickiest eaters who claim not to like fish.
Because it’s so versatile, our favorite salmon recipes use many different cooking methods and techniques. In this guide, we’ll teach you the tips you need to know for how to choose, prep and cook salmon like a pro.
How to Buy the Best Salmon
Cuts of Salmon
You’ll find a few popular cuts of salmon at the fish counter of most supermarkets:
- Salmon steaks are horseshoe-like cuts taken crosswise from the fish. This salmon steak recipe is great to use for special-occasion dinners for a small group.
- Salmon fillets are simply smaller portions cut from salmon sides. They’re the most common cut of salmon and they can weigh anywhere from 4 to 8 ounces. We opt for salmon fillets for most of our weeknight dinner recipes as they’re quicker to cook and more convenient than larger cuts of fish.
- A side of salmon makes a statement if you’re cooking for a group. The cut is taken lengthwise from the whole fish and serves eight or more.
Farm-Raised vs. Wild-Caught
The environment from which salmon was sourced has a big impact on how the fish looks and tastes—and, inevitably, how much it costs. Here are some of the key differences between wild-caught and farm-raised salmon:
- Appears thin and lean
- Bold red-orange color
- Has few thin stripes of fat
- Can be pricey and hard to find
- Appears thicker and fattier
- Pale orange-pink color
- Has large visible stripes of fat
- Affordable and commonly available
While there are advantages to both wild-caught and farm-raised salmon, we like to shop for wild-caught salmon when we can. Depending on where you live, you may find a few different breeds of wild-caught salmon. These are likely from the Pacific and can include chinook (also known as king), chum or keta, coho and sockeye salmon. You can’t go wrong with any of them; all are suitable for the most common prep methods.
Editor’s note: If you can’t find wild-caught salmon at your local store, we recommend ordering from Sitka Salmon Shares. The seafood company operates boat-to-doorstep, working with small family fishermen who only catch what is sustainable. In any given year you’ll be able to try fresh cuts of king, keta, sockeye and coho salmon. “It can really open up your exposure to fish you might not have otherwise tried,” says Jennifer Zeigler, Deputy Editor of Country Woman.
Skin On vs. Skin Off
Can you eat salmon skin? Absolutely. We prefer to cook salmon with its skin on for most preparations, as the skin acts as a barrier from the direct heat. This helps keep the delicate meat tender. Not to mention, the skin becomes deliciously crispy when oiled up and exposed to heat.
The only time we recommend removing the skin from salmon is if you’re planning to poach it or cook it en papillote. These methods will result in soggy skin.
How to Remove Pin Bones
Pin bones are tiny hairlike bones that can make salmon fussy to eat. Most cuts of salmon have the pin bones already removed, but sometimes you’ll still find them in specialty cuts.
To check for pin bones, simply run your fingers up the length of the salmon. If you feel slight bumps, remove the bones with a pair of clean needlenose pliers or fish tweezers ($12). Grab hold of the bone, give it a wiggle and it’ll slide right out.
Tools for Cooking Salmon
You only need a few tools for cooking salmon. Our Test Kitchen recommends a thin, sturdy metal spatula like this fish turner ($14) that makes it easy to transfer fillets from one surface to the next. A cast-iron skillet ($24) will also come in handy for our favorite oven-roasted salmon recipe. Lastly, a set of plastic squeeze bottles ($10) are always nice to have on hand to apply oil directly onto fish or into the pan.
How to Know When Salmon Is Done
An easy way to test when salmon has finished cooking is to use the flake test: Press down on the top of the fillet with a fork. If the salmon flakes, or separates along the lines of its flesh, it’s finished cooking. Its flesh should look opaque.
You can also test salmon with a food thermometer. The USDA recommends salmon has an internal temperature of 145°F when the thermometer is inserted into the thickest part of the fish. However, due to an effect called carryover cooking, we recommend pulling salmon off heat around 115° to 125°F. It will rise to a food-safe temperature before it reaches your plate.
Wondering what the white stuff is that sometimes comes out of salmon? It’s called albumin. When salmon is overcooked, this milky protein will begin to seep out and coagulate on the surface of the fish. While it might not be the most attractive, it’s perfectly safe to eat.
You don’t want to make these common salmon mistakes.
How to Cook Salmon
How to Bake Salmon
This oven-roasted salmon recipe was developed by staffer Jeanne Ambrose. It’s a great recipe to know by heart.
- Place an oven-proof skillet into a cold oven and heat to 450ºF.
- Brush a center-cut salmon fillet (1-1/2 pounds) with olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the oven add the fillet skin side down—this is the key to crispy-delicious skin!
- With the salmon in place, return the skillet to the oven and cook uncovered for 14 to 18 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 125ºF. Remove from the pan and cut the salmon into single-serving sizes.
Recipes for Baked Salmon
How to Pan-Sear Salmon
Pan-seared salmon a simple dish that doesn’t heat up the kitchen. For a fresh take, we love slathering it with creamy dill sauce like this pan-seared salmon recipe submitted by Angela Spengler from Tampa, Florida.
- In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat.
- Season salmon and place in skillet, skin side down. Reduce heat to medium. Cook until fish just begins to flake easily with a fork, about 5 minutes on each side. Keep an eye on the salmon here; if the skillet gets too hot, the outside of the salmon will get too dark before it’s cooked through.
Recipes for Pan-Seared Salmon
How to Grill Salmon
Cooking salmon on the grill is just about the only way to get a good charred crust. Glazes and marinades like you’ll find in this recipe for grilled salmon ensure that your dish is loaded with flavor. To keep fish from sticking, ensure your grill grates are clean and well-oiled.
- Marinate or season salmon. Moisten a paper towel with cooking oil; using long-handled tongs, rub on grill rack to coat lightly.
- Place salmon on grill rack, skin side up. Grill, covered, over medium heat for 4 minutes. Turn; grill 3-6 minutes longer or until fish just begins to flake easily with a fork.
Recipes for Grilled Salmon
How to Broil Salmon
While most people bake fish in the oven, we love using the broiler instead. A broiler basically works like a reverse grill, cooking your fish from the top down. It’s super easy to pull off, and you can get away with using little to no oil because the fish won’t stick. We especially love this broiled recipe for Salmon with Spinach & White Beans from Mary Ellen Hofstetter of Brentwood, Tennessee.
- Preheat the broiler and position the top rack so it’s about six inches from the heating element.
- Place salmon fillets, skin side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Cover with a light layer of cooking spray and season with salt and pepper.
- Slide the baking sheet underneath the broiler. Cook for about 7 to 10 minutes.
Recipes for Broiled Salmon
How to Poach Salmon
Poaching sounds fancy, but it’s really just a gentle cooking method that uses a warm, flavorful liquid to cook your fish. We love the aromatics called for in this Simple Poached Salmon recipe shared by Erin Chilcoat of Central Islip, New York. It’s super healthy and shockingly easy to pull off. (Psst: You can also make this recipe in the pressure cooker.)
- In a large saucepan, combine water with a blend of seasonings and aromatics. (We recommend 3 cups water, 1 cup wine, 1 small sliced onion, parsley, peppercorn, plus a 1/4 teaspoon of salt.) Add the salmon in a single layer to the pan. If the liquid does not cover the fillets, add extra water until it does.
- Bring the saucepan to a simmer over medium heat. When it’s just below simmering (about 180°F), reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook the salmon for 15 to 20 minutes, until it flakes easily with a fork. Remove the salmon to a plate and let it rest before serving.
Recipes for Poached Salmon
How to Cook Salmon in a Pouch
Also called salmon en papillote, this traditional cooking method traps steam inside parchment paper, resulting in a perfectly moist piece of fish. It’s a great compromise between the texture of baked and poached fish, and there are almost no dishes to clean when you’re finished cooking!
What’s more, you can even cook a simple veggie inside the packet, too, as we do in this recipe for Citrus Salmon en Papillote from Dahlia Abrams of Detroit, Michigan. To serve, allow your guests to open the packets at the table, or you can open the paper and plate the fish ahead of time. Either way, open the packets carefully to allow the steam to escape.
- Preheat the oven to 425°F. Cut four pieces of parchment paper into 16- by 12-inch rectangles. Fold the paper in half and, using a pair of scissors, cut out a large heart shape, using up as much space on the paper as you can. Open the heart and arrange two lemon slices on the right side of the fold on each piece of paper. Place a salmon fillet on top of the lemon slices and season it with salt and pepper. Finish the packets by adding desired herbs or vegetables and a drizzle of lemon juice.
- Fold the left side of the heart over top of the salmon. Starting at the top of the heart, fold the edges down to create an overlapping crimped pattern. When you get down to the bottom, twist the final fold under the packet to secure it. You can also use a paperclip to hold it into place, if you like.
- Place the packets on a sheet tray and slice it into the preheated oven. Bake the salmon for 12 to 15 minutes, until it flakes easily with a fork.
How Long Does Salmon Last?
Uncooked salmon lasts for 1 to 2 days in the fridge and 6 to 8 months in the freezer. To store salmon, wrap in a tight layer of plastic wrap followed by a layer of aluminum foil. When freezing, place wrapped salmon in a freezer-safe storage bag, removing as much air as possible. Mark the bag and label it with its use-by date. To thaw salmon, place in the fridge overnight.
Cooked salmon can last in the fridge for 2 to 3 days, but that it may expire sooner depending on the freshness of the fish when it was first cooked. Always check for signs of spoilage before serving. If your salmon has a slimy texture, unpleasant smell or milky discoloration it should be tossed.
The Best Sauce for Salmon
While salmon tastes great on its own, a classic way to dress up this tender fish is to spoon on a flavorful sauce. Here are a few simple sauces to start with:
- Gremolata: In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
- Dill and Caper Butter: In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup softened butter, 1 tablespoon minced shallot, 1 tablespoon minced fresh dill, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon chopped capers.
- Maple Soy Glaze: In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 minced green onion, 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes.
What to Serve with Salmon
Already have a great salmon recipe, but need another dish to make your meal complete? Choosing the best side dishes for salmon is easy. Popular choices include cooked vegetables like asparagus or green beans and starches like potatoes or rice. But don’t convention keep you from switching it up. Serve salmon with pearled couscous or a simple spinach salad for a healthy take. If you have a simply seasoned salmon fillet, opt for bold-flavored sides like pickled cucumber or brown-sugar glazed carrots.